Over the past several weeks, I’ve been inclined to focus on the practice of Lent. I’ve seen my Roman Catholic friends do this for years, but I never gave it much thought. Yet Lutherans, Anglicans, and other denominations inheriting the Reformation tradition also observe this part of the liturgical calendar. Most people who practice Lent sacrifice something from their daily life (usually a food item) from Ash Wednesday until Maundy Thursday.
Its purported purpose is to imitate the suffering and temptation of Christ during His forty-day fast in the desert. In centuries past, the methods of penance were much more serious compared to the types of self-denial we commonly see today. Giving up sweets (for example) during the Lenten season may indeed trivialize the sufferings of Christ, but that’s not my main reason for opposing the practice.
Of the many theological errors before us, one of the most common is the confusion between historia salutis (redemption accomplished) and ordo salutis (redemption applied). The former represents those once-for-all, unrepeatable events in redemptive history. Roman Catholicism, for example, makes the serious mistake of confusing historia salutis and ordo salutis with respect to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross (i.e., their practice of the Mass in which Christ is “re-sacrificed”). Charismatic movements do the same thing with Pentecost.
Similarly, the practice of Lent takes the historia salutis event of Christ in the desert and turns it into something which can be counterfeited on an individual level. In doing so, it fits perfectly with a works-righteousness mentality. Inherent within Lent is the idea that its practice brings one “closer to God,” making a man-centered mockery of God’s grace.
Another unbiblical aspect of Lent is the very public manner in which it is practiced. Jesus condemned hypocrites for their outward displays of piety (Matt. 6:1-18), revealing the self-righteous nature of such gestures. Lent is very legalistic as well and Paul warns us against binding the conscience in areas which God has left free (Rom. 14:1-12). True sanctification involves the recognition that our consciences are liberated by Christ’s teachings (Mark 7:17-18) while also understanding that the corrupt, sinful heart is what separates us from God (vv. 20-23).
Looking at this unbiblical practice of self-imposed legalism, one can easily see why the Puritans decided to scrap the liturgical calendar entirely. The human heart loves this type of legalism and it greatly obscures the Gospel. There is something seriously wrong when people begin to see the Christian life in these terms. Having a meatless Friday isn’t going to bring us closer to God.
Indeed, the Christian life involves a daily introspection coram Deo that is much deeper than giving up chocolate or television for forty days. It’s understandable that Roman Catholics would keep this practice given their view of justification, but it pains me to see fellow Protestants engaging in Lent because it completely goes against the grain of Reformation theology.
Sacrificing a favorite food or pastime is not a means of sanctification. We must allow the simplicity of the Gospel to break through the traditions of man, even the seemingly innocuous ones. There are much bigger issues out there than Lent to be sure, but it’s a man-centered legalism which has no place among the people of God. The work of Christ is sufficient.